Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 11, 2008

The Art and Craft of Writing Biography

I’ve borrowed the title of this entry from the name of a graduate course at UMass-Amherst that I visited Tuesday to talk about some of the many ways biographies are written for children. I felt so comfortable looking at the small group around a long table while unloading piles of books (Bonnie Christenson’s woodcuts for her picture book about Woody Guthrie and Mary Azarians’s for Snowflake Bentley seemed to get the most “Oooohhhs.”) Then Professor Maria Miller introduced me as someone they’d been looking forward to hearing, as holding some sort of key to financial glory. Um, me? Writing for children isn’t the usual road to riches, and my nonfiction and historical fiction lane would be even rockier. Maria explained something along the lines that, well, children’s books do sell, and looking around, I got the picture. These were graduate students writing theses about obscure people often doing pretty obscure things because they fascinated them. No wonder I felt so immediately at home with them, but also perhaps they would face even greater publication challenges than me as they tried to move their work beyond dissertation committees.

One scholar remembered reading American Girl books and said that they were probably the beginning of her journey as a history major. We wondered about where those readers go in between young girls and adults: what are the equivalents for those of high school age? Some were considering reframing their work for a young audience, and I talked some about looking into state education requirements to see if there was a match. They spoke of biography as micro history, and we looked at some books that use one person as a way into a whole period, such as Albert Marrin’s The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America.

I mentioned the December 5 entry on Marc Aronson’s blog, Nonfiction Matters, about how changing a work for adults for one for children or teens is about much more than changing the book’s length and vocabulary. Maria was familiar with Aronson’s writing, which she called brilliant, and said how the challenges for authors for young people were in many ways greater than those in academia. “We can just add material and put another footnote, but writers for the young have to synthesize everything.” For every line we write, we have to ask things like: what does this add to the story? Is it absolutely necessary? Is there something else the reader may need to know to understand this? The answers to these questions should give the narrative some shape, and if they don’t, maybe you just wrote something else that should be cut. This is not a field for those who can’t stand to kill their darlings.

We discussed various ways to structure a book. Some people seemed to find the idea of ending a biography with anything but death daunting, while others gave examples of films that broke chronology in interesting ways. Since the number of words we can use is less, we have to let things like the shape of a book speak for our themes. Some people were intrigued by my mention of those who mix history with poetry. Natasha Tretheway in Native Guard (for adults, but as a UMass grad I wanted to mention her) and Marliyn Nelson, who wrote the astonishing Carver and the recent The Freedom Business, which puts poems on one page facing parts of an original document from 1798, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa.

In preparation for this class, I read a few of the books on the syllabus, one of which was Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography. In the gorgeous introduction, Lee
quotes Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote about Charlotte Bronte. Her advice: “Get as many anecdotes as possible. If you love your reader and want to be read, get anecdotes!”

Yes. And when I was asked how I pare, I said that as I work my way through source material, I’m waiting for what wakes me up. I may not know why just then, but I’ll jot down what startles me, often something involving the five senses: so it can look mundane. But somewhere down the line I may be glad to know someone picked blueberries on a certain ordinary or not day in history.



  1. I would have loved to sit in on this presentation! It’s hard to strike that balance between private storyline and cultural references.
    Hey, would you like to chat this afternoon? Say, around 1 or 2, Pacific Time? I’ll pour the tea… 🙂

  2. Sounds great. I’m meeting with students until 2 in Mass. and the ice may make a a slow ride home — but not that slow! Thanks for the tea!

  3. I love that you watch for things that surprise you. Those are probably the details that make your story vivid & real to the readers.

  4. Love this post! Yes, things that surprise, startle, or just plain delight are worth noting. And I’ll have to take a look at Hermione Lee’s book. Thanks!!

  5. I look for the way in. . ..
    Thanks for sharing your session with us.
    I’m going to read the books you mentioned =)
    and thanks for sharing part of your process
    When I write a biography – I look for the way in — what ‘anecdote’ or life event can I use to hook the reader [or to use as a throughline or a theme ]
    It also is a ‘way in’ for me to get to know the person. =)

  6. Kind of sad to say, but some biographies for adults I read thinking, just because you found out this fact, did you have to put it in? There’s some slogging involved, so when my heart starts beating hard, I notice!

  7. I didn’t make my way through every essay, but the introduction alone is rich. She has the best Henry James quote ever. And we must let Kelly know, if she does not, there is a Jane Austen essay.

  8. Re: I look for the way in. . ..
    Great point! Sometimes when I’m at the sticky stage — what is this about? why I am doing this — I think back to the moments or stories that got me started: there’s a key.

  9. I may not know why just then, but I’ll jot down what startles me, often something involving the five senses: so it can look mundane. But somewhere down the line I may be glad to know someone picked blueberries on a certain ordinary or not day in history.
    I so agree. Says the woman who has written a poem about Jane Austen’s confusion over the “I before E” rule. I pick what appeals to me, and thus far, I’ve found that those are the bits that really make the subject come alive somehow, or explain their time.

  10. It is often true that what grabs us will grab our reader, but sometimes we have to push it out a bit, or shine it up, for our reader (less immersed) to get it.
    I have to read that “i before e” Austen poem. Maybe I’ll at last get over my fourth grade trauma when Mrs. Shaw bid the class to shout/chant it at me, going down in the spelling bee after fumbling receive.
    You’d like the Hermione Lee book I cite here, with its Jane Austen chapter. Have you read it?

  11. No, I’ve not read it. I’ll try to look for it.
    I’ll be happy to email the poem to you, if you really want to look at it. It’s very short, but I happen to like it. (Jane continued to mix the rule up well into her 20s, if not beyond.)

  12. Kelly, it would be a treat to read another of your poems, thanks! You can email me at jeanatkins at aol dot com.

  13. The Tuesday class
    What I was most interested in Tuesday was the part about how YA bio might be different from adult. I read Marc Aronson’s blog, and then I read THE REAL REVOLUTION, which I agree Marla SHOULD assign to her undergrads! I think it’s interesting to explore (and I’m really curious how far the editors are willing to go) the ways teens are getting narrative info, the ways stories are structured for them in films, graphic novels, etc. I still think after you’ve seen PULP FICTION, it’s really hard to watch CITIZEN KANE. I’m trying to get closer to a visceral, novelistic depiction of my subject’s life because I think readers are looking for ways to understand the past experientially as well as intellectually, and they probably have less ability to fill in the context details for themselves than we’d like them to have. And I suspect that teen readers are well aware that have agendas and personal stakes in the work, so owning up to them is probably a good way to engage the reader with the author (and the present) as well as the story. (Dan Allosso,

  14. Re: The Tuesday class
    Dan, thanks for writing!
    Sounds like maybe you’re considering more of a historical fiction approach?

  15. Re: The Tuesday class
    On the contrary, I think what I’m doing is advocating for a richer narrative nonfiction. I think readers (YA definitely, adults probably as well) will respond to a nonfiction style that borrows some of the tools of novelists to bring the reader closer to the action. I’m not talking about making up interior states for the subject. I think a lot more could be done to help the reader feel the setting and the subject’s documented response to it and to events, than is currently being attempted in most adult history and bio. That’s why I was so fascinated by your comments — because it seems like kids’ and YA writers are already thinking about this.

  16. Re: The Tuesday class
    A richer narrative nonfiction: sounds wonderful.

  17. I’m coming late to this, but I wanted to say I would have loved to sit in on this class, too! I’ve enjoyed and admired your books for years, and it’s fascinating to hear about the way you research the source material behind them. My own mind works the same way — I’ve learned to note down those “blueberry moments” even when the logical part of my brain is saying, “And how on earth are you going to use that?!”

  18. Thanks for coming by, and not late at all, although I know blog time moves faster than other forms of time. And thanks for the comment on my books — you could stumble in wicked late and making a racket and say that and all would be forgiven!
    I just added you to my friends list and look forward to catching up on some of your posts over the next few days. I am jealous of your icon, and I love your Wilde quote on your user page!

  19. Thank you so much for the warm welcome! I’m still learning my way around lj, but I’ve been taking great delight in your blog for several months now. This is the first time I finally had the courage to push past lurkdom and post, and I’m glad I did.

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